Who is your mother, and what does she remember? The answers can be a treasure chest or a Pandora’s box, and these three books explore them in very different ways.
What We Carry
After Maya Shanbhag Lang became a parent, her mom told a perplexing story about a woman trying to decide whether to save herself or her child from a deep, dangerous river, because she couldn’t do both. The tale reflected Lang’s own family’s past in ways she could never have imagined, and she slowly, artfully reveals the layers of this mystery in her engaging memoir, What We Carry.
Lang’s mother, a psychiatrist from India, was always her rock—a contrast to Lang’s cruel, verbally abusive father, whom her mother eventually divorced. Dr. Shanbhag was also a spitfire of a woman, like when she stood watch over Lang as a child in the dentist’s chair, chiding the dentist every time he used his gloved hand to readjust the light, thus breaking the sterile field. Unafraid of what the dentist thought of her, she forced him to put on a fresh pair of gloves over and over again. Lang’s mother was “not sentimental or effusive, had never read to me as a child or baked me cookies, but she would travel great distances for me and carry astonishing weights. When I most needed her, she was there.”
And then, suddenly she wasn’t. As Lang discovers that her mother has Alzheimer’s disease, she brings Shanbhag home to live with her and her family. During this time, her mother’s dementia and close proximity give the author a unique opportunity to learn surprising truths about their family’s past. As Lang explains, “I want to get to know her while I still can. I want to separate the myth from reality, to reconcile the mom I always imagined with the more complicated person I’m just starting to know.” Lang is an immediately affable and honest narrator who offers an intriguing blend of revelatory personal history and touching insight about her mother’s illness.
Braver Than You Think
Dementia is also at the forefront of Maggie Downs’ memoir, Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, but in a very different way. While Lang delves into her past, Downs plunges into the future as her mom begins a sharp, final decline.
Whenever a new issue of National Geographic arrived in the mailbox of their Ohio home, Downs and her mother would huddle over the exotic photographs of faraway places, marveling at the many wonders and vowing to someday see some of these sites together. However, when her mother’s early onset Alzheimer’s robbed them of this opportunity, journalist Downs quit her job and started back-packing solo around the world, visiting 17 countries in the course of a year.
Traveling on a frugal budget and roughing it, Downs encounters not only astounding vistas (such as the stately temples and rock formations in Hampi, India) but also outright danger (as when she arrives in Cairo in the middle of the Arab Spring uprising)—and more than her fair share of dis-comfort (for example, being attacked by a monkey while volunteering at a Bolivian primate sanctuary). Her entertaining account of this year seamlessly blends exciting travelogue tales with musings about her mother, punctuated by concerns about whether Alzheimer’s disease will eventually manifest in her own body. “Part of the reason I embarked on this trip,” she explains, “was to complete my mom’s goals, but this is also a battle against the disease itself, cramming myself full of my own memories, hoarding them and holding them tight, before anything is taken.” By the end of Braver Than You Think, readers may be ready to embrace Downs’ insatiable approach to life, “chasing adventure for the sake of living deliberately and passionately.”
When novelist Edan Lepucki started an Instagram account in 2017 called “Mothers Before,” she never imagined how popular it would become. Now continuing the phenomenon in book form, she’s gathered more than 60 essays addressing the question, “Who was my mother before she was a mother?” Each contributor to Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them was asked to submit a photo of their mother before she became a parent, along with a micro-essay about the image and their mother’s life.
With contributors such as Jennifer Egan, Alison Roman, Lisa See, Jia Tolentino and Laura Lippman, the results make for delightful browsing—ranging from sassy quips, like Tiffany Nguyen observing a picture of her mom in Vietnam in 1970 (“Here is my mom rocking it in a minidress”), to somber historical reminders, like writer Camille T. Dungy’s powerful comments about her mother’s childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia: “The members of the Court Street Baptist Church started a library fund to help my black mother’s black father buy the books he needed to preach the sermons his black parishioners needed to hear every Sunday in that deeply segregated, often hateful town.” As Lepucki says so well, Mothers Before is “about seeking clarity, and interrogating history, and trying to understand the myriad ways a woman might navigate a life.” Don’t miss this unique mini-museum of women’s history.